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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/5/13

Symbolism over Substance: Reflections on the 21st Century March on Washington

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Message Sylvester Brown, Jr.
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It's taken me a few weeks to put the recent commemoration of the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" into some perspective. It was a moving, honorable event that paid homage to the sacrifices of many brave and courageous souls who put their lives and careers on the line to change the trajectory of a nation embedded in race-based oppression. There were stirring, eloquent speeches from President Barack Obama, the National Urban League's Marc Morial, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the NAACP's Ben Jealous, and others. But beyond the symbolic celebration of a bygone occasion, I found myself questioning the leadership and still hungry for much-needed direction.

Where was the outlined plan for Congress and the Obama Administration that would push them to immediately address the disproportionate woes black people endure today? After all the speeches, what were black people supposed to do to reclaim their communities and their children's lives? Why was there no clear agenda in this time of social, educational and economic crisis?

Some will say that the speakers did in fact refer to a "21st century agenda" and that Obama--speaking at the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke 50 years ago--did mention the " growing inequality" in America and the need for "a fair shot for the many." But what was really said? More importantly, what was not said?

View from the Lincoln Memorial toward the Washington Monument on August 28, 1963, source Wikipedia by

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom program by From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

There were indeed protests back in 1963 from the White House, religious organizations and more moderate civil rights groups that wanted speakers to delete any inflammatory or indicting remarks about government or religious institutions. Organizers and activists such as Stokely Carmichael and members of SNCC, CORE and the SCLC defiantly opposed such censorship. Under pressure and threats of public denouncement from powerful groups, some of the of the rhetoric was softened and author James Baldwin was stricken from the program for fear of what he might say. Still, the thunder still roared. For example, in his speech, Congressman John Lewis--one of the youngest speakers at the 1963 event--urged blacks to "get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes."

Lest we forget, after the 20th Century march, both extraordinary and ordinary black folks went home and got to work. Gathering in churches, homes and neighborhoods, they unapologetically set out to change the course of a nation. They pooled their personal and collective resources, held voter- registration drives, and kicked off nationwide sit-ins and protests throughout the segregated south and the not-yet-integrated north. The Kennedy Administration and the Democratic Party were put on notice that they had to earn black votes. These actions led to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation and President Johnson's "War on Poverty."

It's sad to see today's black leadership rendered impotent. They still operate with 1960s rhetoric and 20th century expectations. The time of "white guilt" stirred by never-before-seen television images of animalistic racism are long gone. In today's ever-evolving multi-media world, bloody coups and genocidal violations around the globe are just a touch-screen away. Against this backdrop, the plight of blacks is seen as outdated and passà to many.

National polls show that the majority of African Americans are very dissatisfied with race relations in America. While most felt the exoneration of George Zimmerman for the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was proof-positive that institutionalized racism still exists, most whites don't share that opinion. The majority, 54 percent, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, believe that minorities "receive equal treatment under the law." A Pew Center study showed that 49 percent of whites were actually satisfied with the verdict, and another Washington Post/ABC poll found that 50% of white Americans think race relations are "very good" or "fairly good."

The reality is that this country, burdened with economic woes that affect everybody, has moved on. In a very real sense, blacks have to make their own change. Back in 2010, the Rev. Al Sharpton and commentator Tavis Smiley almost came to blows over the issue of whether or not Obama was committed to a "black agenda." Sharpton, as president of the National Action Network (NAN), vowed to hold the Administration accountable and develop a real agenda for Black America. Ironically, links to those statements have been taken down from the site, but here's a quote I saved from a 2010 NAN press release: "The collective will discuss the real problems and how we will not only hold the President and Administration of the United States accountable, but how we will hold ourselves accountable and tangibly measure our movement over a 12-month period to enact change."

It's been almost four years since that public release, and Sharpton and other members of the civil rights "collective" are still talking about coming together to draft such an agenda.

This leads me to question the critera for exercising true "leadership." Are they met by old-style civil rights leaders who are still solely entrenched in government guidance and assistance, or by others like Van Jones, Majora Carter, Angela Glover-Blackwell and Michelle Alexander? These are just a few of the forward-thinking individuals who've dedicated their careers to drafting solutions that will lead to revitalized and sustainable "new" environmental and economic systems in which minorities can be major players in their own reclamation.

The 50th anniversary commemoration was the right time and the right place to unveil a budgeted, self-sustaining agenda that would finally tackle issues that have plagued blacks for centuries. What we witnessed instead was a 21st Century symbolic event with homogenized 20th Century messages. Sadly, it was a commemoration with no specific agenda, no plan, and no spark that will truly lift black people to the long-awaited proverbial mountaintop.


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based writer and founder and director of the Sweet Potato Project, a nonprofit program in St. Louis that teaches at-risk youth "do-for-self" entrepreneurial skills.   

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Sylvester Brown, Jr. is an award-winning journalist, former publisher of Take Five Magazine and metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. After leaving the Post in 2009, he began working as a researcher, consultant and contributor with (more...)
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